Indie continues to spin and spiral influencing all other popular genres within Korea. 2021 has been no exception to this rule. A year of introspection has allowed the independent scene to look even further within itself. As a result, we’ve seen stellar albums across the board from students to former idols we have it here in June.
Aaron: It is only halfway through the year yet we have no overlapping picks which is always lovely to see. Perhaps a small indication of how the indie scene continues to grow and bloom even under the shadow of K-pop. We do have some overlapping themes in our list though, for example, both of our lists are topped by hip-hop artists. So why not start there!
Bibi became an instant star within the indie scene with her debut single “Binu”. So my question is: What has it been this year for you that has made Bibi stand out from the rest? I remember from the bias list roundtable that you put her alongside Heize and Baek Yerin as your indie queens. Is it safe to say that Bibi… is the queen of the queens right now?
Siena: I never pit my queens against each other! They are all equal in my starstruck eyes. But Bibi is having an exceptional year, especially in terms of her artistic evolution. She’s always had infectiously brash energy, which shows up strong in the whimsical early 2021 single “Eat My Love”. However, it’s her EP Life is a Bi… that feels like a real high point in Bibi’s career to date.
At a slim 15 minutes total, Life is a Bi… is an exercise in extreme efficiency. Bibi makes use of every second to create an intensely vulnerable album that showcases her vocal versatility, playful musicality, and lyrical candor.
Life is a Bi… is further enhanced by the accompanying series of MVs Bibi has released. There’s always been a streak of the grotesque in Bibi’s work, and it’s been ratcheted up here. Try getting the image of Yoon Mirae softly petting Bibi’s decapitated head in a baroque-style tableau out of your head. What’s great about these MVs is how they balance shock value with real emotional resonance, like in the simple yet devastating “Birthday Cake”.
Aaron: Yes! “Birthday Cake” is my favourite track off of Life is a Bi… and the MV really hurts in its sentiment.
Siena: That combination of poignancy and audacity is really Bibi’s calling card, and as a longtime fan, it’s been a delight to watch her take her signature style to the next level in 2021. I absolutely can’t wait to see what she does next.
I’ll admit, I was not super familiar with Khundi Panda before he landed on your list, but I recently gave MODM: Original Saga a listen and was impressed. I think besides sharing a hip-hop background, he and Bibi both have electric iconoclastic energy, which is always a good thing. What made Khundi Panda your top pick?
Aaron: Oh, I am glad you liked him! His debut album Garosawk which won Best Rap & Hip-Hop-Album this year is probably the best place to start with his music. He also featured on some of the best hip-hop tracks of 2020 (see “VVS”, QM’s “Anchor” and Fisherman’s “Murphy”). Most people will probably know him from finishing in the top 5 of SMTM9 though.
This year Khundi Panda has continued to shine and is by far the most successful of the SMTM9 group (sorry Wonstein). Khundi not only dropped the solo EP, MODM: Original Saga this year but also two collaboration projects one entitled: Khundi Panda vs Damye vs Viann vs Noogi. The other being, The Frost on Your Kids. All three records are stylistically different; MODM sees him diving deep into video-game soundscapes to uphold the EP’s overarching video game character theme. Khundi Panda vs… sees a fusion of punk, indie and R&B all vying for the spotlight and The Frost on Your Kids is 110% hip-hop posse cut after posse cut.
Even with all of that in just six months, that isn’t what has made him my favourite artist this year so far.
It is Khundi’s feature list that has made him such a symbol of indie music for me. Khundi appears on Shindrum‘s jazz-fusion record Who I Am, Kurt Simpson‘s must-hear electronic EP half and Huh!‘s one-two punch single album business boy. Khundi Panda is seemingly at the heart of independent Korean music right now. Every track that features Khundi has been worth checking out despite how unknown the said lead artist was. Tieing that together with his multiple collaborative records and you have the main character in the hip-hop scene right now.
So WE actually have beef on your second pick! You admitted to sleeping on DPR Ian despite me writing a positive album review about MITO. How did this all happen and more importantly what made DPR Ian your number two pick?
Siena: It’s true, I did a foolish thing. Does it help that I pivoted back to your review when I finally boarded the DPR Ian train and found it super helpful in my exploration of MITO?!?
In all seriousness, once I discovered MITO this spring, I fell hard. I love how it is such an “album” in the traditional sense, every track united by MITO’s overriding concept and delectably moody sound. And as an introspective yet conceptual examination of DPR Ian’s bi-polar disorder, the album feels both incredibly personal and universal. For a solo debut effort especially, that’s an impressive accomplishment.
Like Life is a Bi…, MITO also comes with a stellar set of MVs. As you noted in your review, DPR Ian is arguably best known as an MV director, so it shouldn’t be surprising that his own MVs are fantastic. But it is always exciting to find an artist that knows how to translate their music into compelling visual and narrative forms.
Because of how self-contained MITO is, DPR Ian could literally do anything next and it wouldn’t feel out of character. MITO’s “No Blueberries” and just his whole body of work as a part of the DPR crew testify to his talent for collaboration, so I’m personally looking forward to his future partnerships both within and without DPR. But really, I like MITO so much that I’ll check out whatever he releases.
I may have dropped the ball with your DPR Ian review, but I did actually read your piece on Penomeco’s Dry Flower, and even better, I listened to the album right away (Do I get bonus points? I think I should get bonus points). I was impressed and had him on my shortlist for this discussion. How did he end up in your second spot?
Aaron: Yay! Okay, you get all the points, in that case! Penomeco and DPR Ian are my current indie-kings to borrow your phrase so it all worked out perfectly. I had anticipated Penomeco dropping Dry Flower last year. So the wait being over was euphoric. I was worried he’d join Dean and Frank Ocean by teasing the record only to disappear for years. Having a studio version of “Hotel Lobby” feels especially good after living in a live video setting for most of 2020.
I’ve probably said all I need to say about Dry Flower in my review so I’ll redirect my praise to his complete discography. “Coco Bottle”, “Paradise”, “WTF” and “Play Me” remain singles I can throw on whenever. It’s just a testament to his ability to weave soundscapes and seamlessly work with other artists’ unique colour.
It is also easy to be amazed by his production credits list. In particular, his work with EXO has always led to bops! He is just a complete artist. Whether creating a body of work such as Dry Flower or providing his talents to his contemporaries, Penomeco always impresses. Let us hope when Crush returns he brings Ian and Penomeco together, how good would that be?
Or and here is my question to you Siena, who would you want to feature on a song with Babylon between the two? Would you want Babylon and Penomeco to reunite? I think that would be an R&B dream come true. On the other hand, Babylon and DPR Ian would be such an interesting pairing being former idols and all.
Siena: That’s a fun but tough question! I agree, a Babylon and DPR Ian partnership would be fascinating. But I think I’ll throw my support behind a new Penomeco and Babylon duet. I love their previous collaboration, “Real Talk”, plus it meshes with Babylon’s 2021 musical direction.
Broadly speaking, Babylon’s releases have tended towards playful and upbeat R&B, songs designed for mellow bopping. This makes for a compelling contrast with his silky, sultry vocals. But what would happen if Babylon left the sunlight and embraced the shadows that his voice seems tailor-made for?
Prior to this year, unofficial tracks like “Real Talk” were some of the few hints of what that might sound like. But then Babylon released Hardy, the night to his previous album Caelo’s day.
Hardy indeed proves that Babylon’s voice soars in moody, melancholy, and unabashedly sensual musical landscapes. That being said, Hardy is not perfect. Its blessing and its curse is its self-indulgence. Hardy feels like an album that was made with an anything-goes attitude. Sometimes that approach creates audacious gems, like the hypnotic “Going In” featuring a staggering 19 artists. Other times, Babylon swings and misses, such as with the cheesy ballad “Don’t go in the Rainbow”.
Despite its inconsistency, Hardy is ambitious and mesmerizing. It’s an album I return to often regardless of my nitpicks, and from an artistic evolution standpoint, it’s a leap forward for Babylon. He’s also never sounded better, and that’s saying something given the extremely high starting quality of his voice. I’m excited to see what he’ll do with his newly nurtured versatility.
Your final pick also puts out music that can definitely be described as hypnotic. I’m also intrigued by Parannoul’s continued anonymity, a rare feat. Tell me more about this enigmatic shoegaze musician!
Aaron: Parannoul is one of the few Korean artists (Mid-Air Thief and Peggy Gou) I’ve found through western media. Thanks to releasing his second album To See the Next Part of the Dream on Bandcamp, the international mostly-online Shoegaze community championed the artist into noteworthy-ness. The most that’s known about the artist is that they’re a student living in Seoul.
Parannoul points to the power that indie music can have. I wonder how many brilliant artists are hiding in their rooms while the K-pop sun shines eternally. This album has already garnered a following most Korean acts dream of cultivating outside of Korea. A Hallyu wave comes streaming out of a little apartment room.
The fact that Parannoul has been noticed by a western audience also shows indie Korean artists who fear streaming sites that there is a reward. If I was to compare To See the Next Part of the Dream to anything I’d borrow Parannoul’s sample of Neon Genesis Evangelion as a telltale sign. The album has a similar sadness hanging in its cloud to that of Evangelion. Parannoul even describes himself much like Shinji Ikari would describe himself:
His singing skills are f***ing awful, and is below average in height and appearance and everything
All this while crafting the best shoegaze album of the year so far in his bedroom. Making him not only one of the most exciting new acts in Korea’s indie scene but also the most exciting new shoegaze acts in the world right now. It is clear there are still areas of improvement for Parannoul but that just makes his music all the more exciting.
Those are our picks for the best acts in Korea’s independent scene, let us yours! Are we fools for leaving out Takeone or Heize, sound off in the comment section below.